At the Bartell Drugs store at Fifth Avenue and Olive Street, the war against shoplifting is turning into an arms race.
As the thieves have become more brazen — sometimes stealing armloads of inventory to sell on the street — the store has ratcheted up security. More high-theft items are now in locked cases: The current list includes earbuds, phone chargers, disposable razors, curling irons, electric toothbrushes and some L’Oreal products. The store has added more shifts by security guards.
But some employees say the theft continues unabated. They say much of the stealing is done by people who used to hit the Bartell at Third and Union, which, despite heavy security measures, closed in November after what former employees said was $1 million in theft-related expenses in 2019.
“Now, they’re coming here,” said an employee at Fifth and Olive. Nearby, the store’s security guard cat-and-moused with two bag-toting visitors while a co-worker refilled a shelf of Sensodyne toothpaste emptied by shoplifters the night before. “You fill it today and tomorrow it’s gone,” she said. “No mercy.” Bartell wouldn’t comment on its stores’ financial performance.
It’s not just downtown. At Greenwood Hardware, a half-dozen blocks west of Green Lake, owner Willow Yoder said, “Anything in the store over $30 we’ve pretty much locked up.” The store recently installed surveillance cameras after individuals appeared to be casing the store. Shoplifting has become “a cost of doing business,” Yoder added.
That cost isn’t always obvious. Newly released Seattle police data shows that reported shoplifting incidents across Seattle dropped 11 percent between 2018 and 2019, to 4,486, after rising at nearly twice the rate of population growth between 2010 and 2018. Also down are violations of the city’s trespass law, which lets retailers and others request police action against problematic individuals, including those who are known to have shoplifted but haven’t been arrested; those fell 12 percent between 2018 and 2019, after almost quadrupling since 2010.
But many Seattle retailers say those statistics diverge sharply from the day-to-day reality of running a business in the city. Downtown and in the neighborhoods, at national chains and local mom-and-pops, many owners, managers and staff say they’ve had to steadily escalate security measures against shoplifters who’ve become far more aggressive and much better organized in recent years.
“This is not just the teenage girl wanting a pair of jeans and going into the dressing room and stealing them,” said Susie Plummer, vice president and general manager at University Village, where some retailers have hired off-duty police offers for security. “This is two to three individuals coming into a store and taking a lot of merchandise and simply walking out with it.”
Some Seattle retailers say they get hit so often — roughly 10 incidents a day at the Bartell at Boren and Madison, according to one midlevel employee — that some stores find it easier to write off the thefts than to file a police report, a practice that may help explain some of the decline in reported shoplifting.
“At some point, we don’t file [shoplifting reports] much, because, like, it’s gone,” said Cindy Garcia, until recently the manager of the Sprint Store on Third Avenue, about the stolen smartphones and other high-end items that can be resold so quickly police have little chance of finding them. “The recovery part — it won’t happen.”
Shoplifting has always been part of retail — but the scale of the theft today in Seattle can be staggering.
Take the Greenwood Fred Meyer on Northwest 85th Street. In 2018, the store saw $2.1 million in what retailers call “shrinkage,” or losses from theft and waste, including $180,000 from liquor, said a midlevel employee who has seen store data. That’s around 3.5% of total sales, the employee said, representing a “shrink rate” that is more than twice the national average for retailers, and among the worst of Fred Meyer’s 132 locations, employees said. Fred Meyer declined to discuss theft at the store.
The prevalence of Seattle’s shoplifting is changing how retailers do business. Armed security, which can cost $85 an hour per guard, is becoming a more familiar sight. More inventory is being secured: At the Greenwood Fred Meyer, items as innocuous as flashlights, Lego sets, knife sharpeners and bicycle pumps are now in locked cases or, in the case of clothing, cabled to racks.
The impact of shoplifting comes at a politically sensitive moment for Seattle. As the city grapples with massive problems of homelessness and drug addiction, politicians also face mounting questions over taxes, police staffing shortages, and what some see as lax sentencing policies for petty offenders — questions some of the city’s biggest retailers, such as Uwajimaya, have publicly weighed in on.
“It doesn’t seem like things are getting better,” said Denise Moriguchi, CEO of Uwajimaya, on why her company temporarily stopped reporting shoplifting, during an October interview with KIRO. Police are “called and they’re great. But the next day or the next afternoon that person is back in the store.”
Beneath the rhetoric and politics, retailers say they can point to three very concrete ways shoplifting is changing in Seattle.
The most obvious change, merchants say, is socioeconomic: Homelessness and addiction have resulted in sizable populations of highly motivated, often desperate individuals. It’s hardly a coincidence that inventory locked up at the Greenwood Fred Meyer now includes backpacks, portable generators, camp stoves, propane heaters, tents, sleeping bags and other items of use to people living outside.
Another emerging factor: Seattle, like other cities, faces more of what police call “organized retail theft” — shoplifting by groups that scout out security gaps at specific stores and target specific items, such as allergy medicine or costly cuts of meat, that can be easily resold on the street or online. Craigslist and OfferUp are popular venues, retailers say.
One local Safeway manager said its butcher shops now put the store name and address on their fresh meat packaging and periodically get police reports about “people trying to sell [our] steak on the side of the road.”
A third difference Seattle merchants see: Whether organized or alone, shoplifters are now far more brazen. Retailers cite several reasons, including long police response times and a 2009 change in state law that raised the threshold for felony theft from $250 to $750. But another big reason: the rise in “no-touch” policies by liability-conscious retailers that prevent employees from physically interfering with shoplifters.
Fred Meyer employees used to “tackle people and take them back inside and be able to recover the merchandise,” said one employee. But the retailer instituted a no-contact policy about seven years ago, the employee said, and “ever since the word got out about that, it was just like, ‘Cool, I can load up the cart and run right out.’ ” Fred Meyer declined to comment on its policies.
Retailers interviewed for this story were keenly aware that Seattle’s shoplifting problem has no quick fix. In 2016, for example, some businesses in the Phinney Ridge and Greenwood neighborhoods saw a drop in shoplifting and other property crime when police cleared out an RV encampment behind the Fred Meyer, said Chris Maykut, with the 275-member Phinney Neighborhood Association.
But retailers also know that a shortage of officers means police can’t stop the problem from returning and must instead prioritize emergencies and violent crimes over “property crime or shoplifting or drug use,” said Maykut. Police have tried to fill the gap by encouraging businesses to install deterrents, such as cameras, lights and window bars, and to use the city’s online systems for reporting trespass and theft, Maykut said.
Seattle police have acknowledged staffing shortages. The department’s current roster of 1,369 officers is 15 fewer than in 2019 and 128 below the number called for in the current budget, according to a KOMO report. (Seattle police declined to confirm those numbers.) But the department has stepped up recruitment efforts and, according to spokesperson Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, is rolling out an initiative meant to “keep the pressure on criminals who are engaged in organized retail theft.”
Despite such assurances, many merchants said they don’t expect a lot more help from the city. “We do the online reporting if we have something major,” said Greenwood Hardware’s Yoder. “But I think mostly, businesses up here are dealing with it themselves.”
Indeed, for many retailers in Seattle, anti-shoplifting security is simply built in to operations, especially at larger stores. The Greenwood Fred Meyer, for example, uses armed security and also recently corralled its liquor into a secure area with only one entrance. Bartell is adding more glass cases and security guards at some locations, employees say.
Smaller retailers, by contrast, usually can’t afford armed guards or sophisticated anti-theft electronics. They typically opt for lower-budget, bespoke measures, such as locking the restroom, closing off a second entrance, or even putting up obstacles. At a heavily shoplifted 7-Eleven not far from downtown, the exasperated owner now sets a “Wet Floor” sign by the door nearly every night “just to make it harder to run out of the store.”
And where larger retailers can absorb shoplifting “shrink,” some smaller shops are more willing to take personal risk. Pamela Morales, owner of the Simple Life clothing store at Second and Pine, said she has twice chased down shoplifters herself to try to get merchandise back.
There are other limitations. In progressive Seattle, retailers say they must be mindful of how their security measures play with paying customers.
“Sometimes, the very kind people of Seattle don’t react well to us accusing someone of shoplifting,” said Wendy Powell, owner of Childish Things, a Crown Hill children’s resale store that has dealt with shoplifting. “So we just try to handle it in a low-key way. If it’s just shoplifting, we just try to absorb the loss rather make a scene and then ask them not to come back.”
At Greenwood Hardware, Yoder said she tries to strike a balance between social awareness and business realities.
She and her staff “set boundaries” for unacceptable behavior in the store, but they also try to treat even rough-looking customers with respect until those boundaries are crossed. Many of them, she said, “are going through things that we would have no idea” about.
So far, Yoder said, that strategy has let the store keep shoplifting losses at a constant, tolerable level. And in the current climate, Yoder said, “that’s really the only thing I could ask for.”